Autumn 2015 / Short Story and Poetry Contest
A Pilgrimage to Atalaia

Runner-up in the 2015 U of T Magazine Short Story Contest


The chicken ran in circles, gaining speed until she collapsed not far from her own head. I wanted to grab her, cuddle her, call out, “Princeza Cinza!” – the name I’d given her because her feathers were the colour of ashes. But my mother warned me not to get the spewing blood all over my new white poplin dress that I was to wear the next day. We were going on our yearly pilgrimage to Atalaia.

My father had held the chicken’s neck down on a flat rock in the middle of our patio. He talked to her softly, the chicken knowing him well – he’d been feeding her the best corn all year so she would give us good eggs. The chicken’s eyes were roving and she clucked noisily, afraid, I could tell, just before the knife cut through. I started to cry. My mother grabbed me by the shoulders. “You silly child,” she said. “Princeza Cinza knew all along it was going to die some day. That’s what chickens do – they produce eggs and die. That’s their purpose.”

It was still thick black outside when my mother woke me the next morning. But we had to get to Atalaia before the sun came up to wash our faces in the holy fountain.

“Why do we have to leave so early, Avó?” I’d asked my grandmother the night before.

“Santa Atalaia only blesses those who arrive early.”

“Why?”

“They still haven’t sinned much by then. It’s on those she performs her miracles. She protects them for the rest of the year.”

I quickly got dressed. I wanted to be first to wait under the clock on the front of my grandfather’s house where we were all meeting. Many of us were going, including the shoe-maker, who lived next door to my grandfather, his wife and their teenage daughter, Beatriz.

The first rays of sun began to pierce through the charcoal horizon as we got near Atalaia, lighting up the road. But the forest encircling it, was still looming dark.

It had been a long walk. There were times I thought of asking my grandfather to carry me on his shoulders, as he’d done the year before. But I never did. I didn’t want anyone to think I was still a baby, especially Beatriz.

It was chilly under the thick eucalyptus and the tall pines, the spongy floor of dead leaves still wet and smelling of mildew.

The men got busy staking out a shady spot under the biggest trees, the woods already crowded with people. The women carefully checked out the tree trunks for smoothness; they didn’t want to get hurt when their behinds got hit against them.

“Why are the women hit and not the men?” asked Beatriz. Everyone knew she was smart. She was the only girl in Amendoeiro going to high school in the larger town of Montijo. “So they behave well all year,” my father said. The men laughed.

“Who started it?”

“It’s a tradition,” my mother said.

“I know, but who started the tradition?”

They all thought for a minute, then turned toward my grandfather.

“Oh,” he said. “It likely began when we ran around with tails and fur on our backs.”

All the baskets and bags filled with food and wine were placed against a tree and tightly covered with a blanket to protect them against thieves. My grandfather opened a bottle of aguardente, filled up little glasses and passed them around. “To kill the night’s germs,” he said.

My grandmother gave me a taste. It burned my tongue. She gulped down the contents of her glass. “I don’t know how men can drink this,” she said, as she waved her other hand back and forth in front of her mouth.

We left for the fountain, which was located at a small distance from the picnic area. Beggars had already formed an unbroken line on both sides of the dirt road. Many were blind, others had one arm or one leg missing and leaned on crutches. Most were unshaven and wore dirty, raggedy clothes.

They must’ve come last night so they could be ready, I thought. I reached into the cloth purse my grandmother had made me. It was heavy with all the pennies I’d saved all year from the ten cents allowance my mother gave me on Sundays.

“Not yet,” my grandmother said. “First the washing.”

There was a long line-up in front of the fountain. The sand around it was soaking wet. The air was cool and damp but the sun was beginning to warm the day.

I waited behind my grandmother; everyone else was ahead of us. After my grandmother washed and dried her face with a towel she’d brought from home, I handed her my purse.

The fountain was small, oval shaped, made of white cement, with a spout in front. The water ran into a cement basin that was quickly filling up with sand carried over by all the feet.

As I bent down toward the water, a pigeon landed on the fountain. It’s grey wings fluttered, as if in a panic, its beady eyes, anxious, stared at me, just like Princeza Cinza just before my father killed her.

I dashed back to my grandmother.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “Go wash your face.”

But I refused to even turn around.

I woke with a start. We’d all been laying down on our blankets for a siesta after lunch. We’d eaten cod-fish cakes and black olives. The chicken would be eaten later.

I stood up.

Most people were still sleeping. My grandfather was snoring. The shoemaker farted.

Gradually everyone got up. Beatriz and her mother began peeling large, red cheeked peaches.

“Would you like one?” Beatriz’s mother asked when she saw me looking. She dipped in her basket and handed me a tiny, sickly-looking fruit.

“No thank you,” I said. “I’m not hungry.”

My father grabbed my mother’s arms, the shoe-maker her legs, panting as he did so. They dragged her to the nearest pine tree. Her dress caught on the bark, revealing her upper legs, their whiteness making me look the other way. They hit her bottom against the tree seven times, counting loudly and slowly, “one, bump, two, bump, three, bump, four…” My mother laughed. But I could see she was upset –her face went serious the moment they dropped her on the ground.

Afterwards, she kept fixing her new perm and pulling down her skirt. Then my uncle Rafael, my mother’s younger and only brother, and Beatriz came for me. “Time for you,” they crooned. They swung my behind hard against the pine; I stopped counting after five, biting my lower lip to ease the pain.

Then they dropped me on a lump of pine needles, my arms and legs getting scratched and dirty, my dress rolling up over my head, exposing my underpants. The men all clapped, including my grandfather. The shoe-maker bent over me and made the sign of the cross with his fat hairy hand, “Now you’re baptized.”

Once I got up, I turned my back to everyone. I wiped the scratches with spit, wiped and wiped, my head down, hiding the falling tears.

My mother came over, removed the pine needles from my dress and hair, retied the large bow at the back of my dress and wiped some of the blood oozing from the scratches with a handkerchief.

“Let’s go to the washroom,” she said. “Maybe there’s water.”

I could see she wasn’t happy – her mouth was puckered and her voice shaky. She picked up her new beige raffia bag she’d bought for the occasion. My grandmother joined us.

The new washroom was a little distance away. Last year we had to walk far into the woods to get away from all the men.

“Good you didn’t take that crappy peach,” my mother said. “Those cheap foxes. They ate the good ones and gave you the worst.”

“You can’t fool Milita,” my grandmother said. “She sees like a hawk.”

I could smell the washrooms before we got there. A deep hole had been dug in the ground and was enclosed with canes, the top leaves still on. There was one for women and one for men. A fat woman with thick, frizzy hair stood by the door. She held a broom and kept sweeping the footsteps left on the dirt by the entrance.

She charged us ten cents each and handed us a piece of newspaper. She said she’d hit a man on the head with a shovel earlier in the day. She’d caught him peeking through the canes.

“The pig wanted to see the women’s asses.”

Inside there were two planks for your feet. I didn’t look down and held my nose tight once my hands were free. I kept thinking about what the woman had said.

Afterwards, we washed our hands in a large clay basin. That was another ten cents each. My mother wet her handkerchief and wiped the dirt and blood off my legs and arms.

At three o’clock we all left for the procession. Throngs of people were walking toward the large, white church. It stood on a hill, overlooking the town. It was said, that the church was supposed to have been built at another location. But in the morning, the laborers would find their tools mysteriously moved to where the church stands now, at the edge of the sacred eucalyptus and pines. In front, was a white marble piazza with a wide set of stairs leading up to the entrance.

When we arrived, the whole area was already full of people. We were lucky to find a place at the bottom of the steps. Beatriz and I sat on the ground, my bottom still hurting. The moment the first musical notes were heard, everyone leaned forward. The band, all dressed in light blue, came out first. The saint wore yellow and had a white mantle over her head. She rested on a pallet decorated with flowers and multi-coloured ribbons that was being carried by four men in dark suits. As they walked down the stairs, one slipped – the saint wobbled and almost toppled over. Everyone went, “Ohhhhhh.” Someone said it was a miracle she didn’t fall and break. Women standing next to me were crossing themselves.

“It wouldn’t matter if the statue broke,” Beatriz whispered in my ear. “It’s only plaster. The real saint is inside the church.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “That’s the real saint.”

“You fool.”

We all followed the procession through the two major streets of town. People pushed and shoved, all of us trying to touch the statue. I wanted to ask my grandmother to pick me up – it was hard breathing with all the people. But Beatriz walked beside me and I didn’t want her to laugh at me again.

On our way back up the church steps, my grandmother and I got separated from the rest of our group. We ended up in a large courtyard. A man was playing the accordion; people were dancing. My grandmother grabbed my arms and started waltzing with me, bouncing me up and down. I’d never seen her dance before. As we swirled around, I saw horses tied up at the back of the courtyard under a red tile roof. When we got closer, the horses smelled funny. It was then I saw the beggars. They were sitting on bales of straw next to the animals. They were eating. I recognized some of the ones I’d given money to in the morning.

“Look, Avó, the beggars,” I said. “They have food.”

“Yes child, Santa Atalaia is the protector of the suffering and the poor.”

“But why doesn’t she help them to see and walk?”

“She can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“She can’t change the world. Things are as they are – the poor are the poor. It’s their fate.” She stopped dancing, took my hand and we walked out. The procession rush was over.

When we arrived, my grandfather wasn’t there.

“Do you know where your father is?” my grandmother asked my mother.

“He was behind us for a while. I thought he was with you and Milita.”

My grandmother started walking back to town. I followed her. I knew she was worried.

When we passed the men’s washroom, she called out “José! José!” but no one answered. Then we stopped at the outdoor bar that had been set up near the washrooms. Strings of red and green banners hung above, swaying in the breeze. He wasn’t there either.

Next we looked in the main tavern located next to the church, across from where we’d sat for the procession. The place was packed with men and very noisy. My grandmother peered inside. It was hard to see for the smoke.

“There he is,” she said. “By the bar. Go tell him it’s time to eat.”

The men moved aside for me to pass. When I got close to my grandfather, I grabbed his arm. “Dinner is ready, Avô.”

“That’s my Neta,” he said to the man next to him. He swallowed the contents of his glass and paid the bartender. “ Yap, strong like me.”

Once outside, he lifted me onto his shoulders. When we passed the outdoor bar with the red and green banners he said, “The colours of our flag. Always remember that: green for hope and red for spilled blood.”

The sun was beginning to set, a pale full moon could already be seen in the cloudless sky. The air was turning cool.

“Okay,” my father said, the moment we arrived. “Time to eat.”

“Yap,” the shoemaker said. “Before dark comes and the wild cats take over the woods.”

“Lots of meowing this year,” my father said. “I heard they’re coming from all around.”

“Avó, what wild cats will take over the woods?”

“Oh, don’t pay attention. Putas – bad women.”

The food was set out on table cloths spread over blankets. There was a hushed buzz, as everyone sat down to eat dinner.

My mother lifted the lid off the pan. The chicken lay with her legs up on a bed of rice, not looking anything like Princeza Cinza without her feathers and her head.

I turned the other way

Beatriz laughed close to my ear – I hadn’t heard her approach. She squatted behind me, locking my head in her hands, forcing me to face the chicken.

“See, see,” she said. “Some day, that’s you. Your head will come off, off, off…” Then she left and joined her parents.

My mother handed each of us a plate with a piece of chicken and rice.

I pushed the meat aside with my fork, determined not to eat it. After I finished the rice I was still hungry.

I ate only the tiniest pieces at first. It tasted delicious. In the end there was nothing left but bones.

I stared down at my empty plate, trying hard not to think of Princeza Cinza.

Carmelinda Scian (BA 1994 Woodsworth, MA 2005) placed second in the short story contest for “A Pilgrimage to Atalaia.” She holds a certificate in creative writing from U of T’s School of Continuing Studies. In 2013, Scian won in the short story category of The Malahat Review’s Open Season Awards; earlier this year she won the Toronto Star Short Story Contest.


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